When we hear the word “babka”, we usually refer it to the elderly woman over 70 years old. To be honest, this very word doesn’t sound respectfully comparing, for example, with “babushka”, which is far more warmer. But the truth is that the age criteria and our own perception of growing old has changed a lot since olden times.
devki – girls, molodukhi – young women, babki – old women
In the XIX century girls used to get married at the age of 15-17. And by their 20s they were considered “pristarelki” (ageing women). At 35 women usually had grown up children and became grandmothers. It reflected in Russian classics, by the way:
Gogol: “An old woman of forty opened the door”; Pushkin: “And old man of thirty entered the room”, “Maria Gavrilovna was not a young girl, she was in her twentieth”; Tolstoi: “Princess Mariwanna, an old woman of 36 years”
It’s no surprise. Life expectancy in those days was much shorter, and not everyone lived to see it until at least forty. According to one version, the word “Sorok” (forty) means “Srok” (time)”. Approximately so much was initially released to man. And then it already depended on the state of health and various circumstances.
In Rus, the status of a woman has always been clearly associated with her age. So, young unmarried girls were called “devici or devki” (girls). Young married women – “Molodukhi” (young woman). After giving birth, the woman became a woman in all meanings. Of course, it mostly reffered to women of the lower class, peasant or serfs.
Origin of the word “Baba” (grandmother, old woman).
The very word “baba” is known even from pagan times. It is present in many Slavic and Turkic languages, and has always had many meanings. For example, the pagan stone idols were called “baba”. There is a version that the term “baba” came from Sanskrit. The “ba” syllable means “live”, “exist”, “be”, “always”, “now”. In the old Slavic “baba” is translated as “the gates of life.”
However, according to another, much more popular hypothesis, the origin of the Russian word “baba” is the same as the words “mom”, “nanny”, “aunt”: small children simply tend to double syllables, and “ba” turned into “a woman”. Perhaps, this way kids called women in family who were older in age and weren’t asociated with their moms. “Mom” fed them with their breasts, and “baba” did not. The word “grandmother” actually was born from “baba”.
Who was called “babki” in Russia?
Initially, apparently, that was the name of the grandmother, as this word denoted the degree of kinship. But later, other elderly women began to be called that way. And it is unlikely that they began to be called “babki” from a specific age. Rather the status of a woman was important here. For example, if she already had adult children, grandchildren and if the reproductive period ended, a woman had a full “right” to be called “babka” (grandmother).
There is also a theory that “babka” could be related to a wise, knowledgeable woman: heifers, wizards, midwives. Some even managed to combine all these “duties”.
According to ethnographer Listov, in his work “Russian Rituals, Customs and Beliefs”, “”babka” associated with the midwife (the second half of the XIX – 20 th years of the XX century)”. According to tradition, the role of the midwife could be performed only by women who gave birth, but already survived menopause, were not living sexually and preferably widowed. It was believed that in this case there will be no problems with the “screwed” children. Mostly they were women of 40-50 years of age or older. So theoretically a woman in old Rus could be called a “grandmother” after reaching about 40-year-old milestone.